Serbian, Ugandan Olympic Athletes Positive for COVID, Prompting Both National Teams to Isolate

Several athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival in Japan for the Tokyo Olympics set to open on July 23.

Two members of the Ugandan team tested positive for the Delta variant of the virus, forcing the entire team and seven town officials and drivers who had close contact with them to self-isolate.

An athlete from Serbia also tested positive on Saturday, canceling the team's training in the city of Nanto.

The Japanese government confirmed that four other people arriving for the Olympics tested positive after entering the country earlier this year, according to the Associated Press.

"There will be more people coming in. ... We should use this as a lesson so that similar problems won't be repeated elsewhere in Japan," Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said at a recent regional governor's meeting to adopt a request for tighter border controls.

With only 13.8 percent of the population fully vaccinated, experts fear that infections will surge, straining the local health care systems and causing hospital overflows.

Tokyo confirmed 342 new cases Monday, the 16th straight day of an increase. On Saturday, the capital reported 716 cases, the highest in five weeks.

Tokyo Olympics COVID-19
A notice warning about coronavirus is displayed outside the Tokyo Olympics Main Press Centre (MPC) on July 2, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Three Olympic athletes recently tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival in Japan leading to teams and staff to self-isolate. Carl Court/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

At a meeting of government advisers, experts warned of the possibility of infections exploding during the games, projecting daily caseloads exceeding 1,000.

"We must stay on high alert," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters on July 1. Noting the rising caseloads, he said "having no spectators is a possibility."

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo organizing committee, agreed.

"It's not that we are determined to have spectators regardless of the situation," Hashimoto said Friday.

Organizers, the International Olympic Committee and others are expected to meet this week to announce new restrictions because of the fast-changing coronavirus situation.

Ryuji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and the head of a government COVID-19 advisory board, urged tighter border controls to detect and isolate infected arrivals at airports to prevent infections from spreading from Tokyo to the suburbs.

Under revised guidelines on health measures sent to 530 municipalities hosting Olympic training, airport officials will isolate an entire group if any member tests positive, and they will stay at designated facilities until the athletes' village opens July 12. Hosting towns can request guests to stop training and isolate themselves until they clear contact tracing and virus tests.

Dozens of municipalities in Japan have canceled their hosting arrangements because of virus worries, and many of them decided to use those facilities as vaccination sites.

In Tokyo, infections are spreading among the young and middle-aged who are largely unvaccinated. The more serious cases requiring hospitalization are gradually replacing the elderly, 26 percent of whom are now fully vaccinated, according to experts.

Japan's fully vaccinated rate of 13.8 percent is slightly above the world average of 11.3 percent but low compared with 47.4 percent in the United States and 49.5 percent in the U.K., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Our World in Data.

Adding to the worries is uncertainty about Japan's vaccination campaign.

Workplace inoculations began in mid-June, with thousands of companies applying to vaccinate employees. But the government then indefinitely halted taking new applications for workplace and large-scale vaccination sites due to tight vaccine supplies.

"The progress exceeded our expectations," said vaccinations minister Taro Kono, noting that daily shots have likely reached 1.2 million or more. He said Japan will receive only one-third of the Pfizer-BioNTechPfizer vaccine supply it had hoped to receive by late July.

"Confusion is spreading across Japan," because of this slowdown, said Kamon Iizumi, the Tokushima governor who also heads the National Governors' Association.

A vaccination center in Kagawa had to suspend shots for 30,000 people, and plans were put on hold for 6,500 companies in Gifu, in central Japan. Other areas including Osaka, Kobe and parts of Tokyo also were forced to suspend planned vaccinations from this week.

"What a disappointment," said Yukio Takano, head of Tokyo's Toshima district. "We have worked so hard to accelerate the rollouts and now we have to put on the brakes. ... What was the rush for?"

Japan began vaccinating medical workers in mid-February and the elderly in mid-April. Despite initial delays due to bungled reservations and shortages, the pace picked up in mid-May when vaccine imports stabilized and staff was secured to meet a primary target of fully vaccinating all 36 million elderly by the end of July.

Suga set up military-run mass vaccination centers in late May and added workplace and college campus venues to accelerate the progress.

On June 21, Japan eased its third state of emergency to less-stringent measures that focused on shorter operating hours at bars and restaurants in Tokyo and other metro areas until July 11.

Experts suggest, however, that a resurgence might require another emergency declaration during the Olympics. If so, organizers may have to reconsider their current limit of 10,000 people or 50 percent capacity at venues to perhaps barring all spectators.

Kengo Sakurada, president of Sompo Holdings and the head of an influential business lobby, said on June 30 that the current vaccination rate is not enough to hold a safe Olympics.

He said he supports having no spectators for events because the damage from a worse outbreak would be far greater.

"I would take the safer option," he said.

Olympic Athletes COVID-19 Positive
U.S. boxing team for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, wearing face mask, arrive at Narita international airport in Narita, east of Tokyo, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Members from the Ugandan and Serbian Olympic teams tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival in Japan for the Games, prompting teams and staff to self-isolate. Kyodo News via AP